Carson baseball heads back to state

A tall order awaits Carson High School today at the NIAA/U.S. Bank 4A State Baseball Tournament in Henderson.

The Senators (21-12) open up against a Silverado (22-6) team that comes in as the South's Sunrise Region champion and has been nationally recognized during the course of this season.

Then again, that's nothing new to coach Ron McNutt.

"It's what you have to expect," McNutt said. "I've done this a long time, going on 30 years, and I've never known the South to be weak. I know they're going to very strong, but we're going to show up Thursday night and see what happens."

Carson and Silverado meet at 7 p.m. at Burkholder Field. In the other first-round matchup, Reno (28-3) and Durango (28-8) collide at 4 p.m. in a rematch of last year's state championship game. Durango is the defending champion.

The winners play each other Friday, preceded by an elimination game between the two losers. The finals are scheduled for Saturday at Burkholder Field.

The Senators comes in as the North's No. 2 seed after losing to Reno 6-4 in the Northern Region tournament finals this past Saturday. Silverado swept through the Sunrise tournament without a loss, including a 7-2 win in the finals over Basic, which was ranked No. 16 in Baseball America's national prep rankings at the time.

"Silverado is going to be very tough. We know they have six Division I signees," McNutt said.

Silverado does indeed have six Division I signees: catcher Tommy Rojas (Pepperdine), first baseman Jeremy West (Arizona State), Ryan Ruiz, Robbie Van, Joe and James Wickman (all UNLV). As a freshman in 1997, James Wickman hit a three-run homer to help Silverado defeat Carson 16-8 in a state tournament elimination game at UNLV.

Ken Heald (7-3) has drawn the opening round mound assignment, according to McNutt. Heald, a 6-foot-4 senior right-hander, won two games and saved another for Carson during the zone tournament.

"We'll probably go with Kenny Heald. He pitched two good games in the zone tournament and the last one was probably one of his better ball games of the year," McNutt said, referring to Heald's complete game 4-1 victory against Reed last Friday that clinched Carson's state berth. "I think he's very excited and pumped."

Pitching and defense will be keys to Carson's tournament chances.

"One, our pitchers have got to throw strikes, we've got to give ourselves a chance to stay in the ballgame, and two, we have to play good defense," McNutt said.

Among Silverado's pitching prospects are Van, who beat Basic in the Sunrise tournament winners bracket final 6-1 while allowing five hits and striking out 14, and Wickman, who pitched a five-hitter to beat in the final on Saturday.

Even though the Senators aren't favored to win their first state title since 1992, McNutt isn't making any concessions.

"In past years we've taken teams to state and fared very well. You can't play the games in the newspapers or with statistics, you have to play it on the field at 7 o'clock on Thursday night," McNutt said.

"I'm going to be proud of them no matter what. The kids went through some tough stretches during the season and they battled through zone - they deserve to make this trip," he went on. "As long as we go down play as hard we can and give 110 percent, that's all you can ask."

3A STATE

The Fernley Vaqueros and Whittell Warriors are a study in contrast coming into their 10 a.m. first-round meeting in the NIAA/U.S. Bank 3A State Tournament this morning in Mesquite.

While Fernley is no stranger to postseason baseball, Whittell is an entirely different story, considering this is the longest the Zephyr Cove club has extended its season since 1992. Fernley (28-7) enters the double elimination tournament as the No. 1 seed from Division I. Whittell (13-12) is the No. 2 seed from Division II after knocking off Dayton and Yerington in the division tournament last weekend in Reno.

After being a division pushover through most of the 1990s, Whittell has reversed its fortunes this spring under the guidance of first-year coach Don Amaral, a retired business executive who came in with a successful record of turning around failing health care companies. He did the same thing with the Warriors on the field this season.

"I knew they hadn't won in a while and knew there were a lot of problems. but those sorts of things aren't major concerns," Amaral told the Tahoe Daily Tribune before the season began. "No, that's when you have 30,000 employees and you don't have enough cash for Friday's payroll."

The Warriors have been led all season by the "1-1a," as Amaral calls them - the pitching combo of Brandon Lee and Bryce Schussel. Lee is 8-2, including Whittell's division tournament win against Dayton and a save in the state-clinching 4-3 victory against Yerington on Saturday.

Not bad for a team that doesn't even have its own home field, since the Warriors battle snow at Lake Tahoe. The Warriors practice and play home games at Lampe Park in Gardnerville.

"This has been one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life, let alone as a coach," he said. "We never dreamed this would happen. We worked hard in the gym. We had one practice on a real diamond going into our first game, and I remember saying, 'Man, this is going to be fun.'"

Fernley has been led by a lineup that features punch at virtually every spot. The Vaqueros scored 36 runs on their way to winning three straight games in the Division I tournament, the last a 19-8 win over Rite of Passage in the finals on Saturday.

The Vaqueros have shown an ability to put up big innings. Take for example their nine-run second inning outburst in the division tournament final against Rite of Passage. They exploded to score 20 runs in the second inning of their 29-5 win against Tahoe-Truckee on April 29.

Levi Diaz (8-2) has emerged as Fernley's ace at the end of the season. Diaz pitched a one-hitter and struck out 13 to beat Battle Mountain 6-1 in the division tournament opener. One week before, the left-hander allowed seven hits and struck out nine when Fernley beat Rite of Passage 8-6 to take first place in Division I.

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